PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Fistfights and sporadic reports of voter fraud marked weekend elections that saw Haitians choose lawmakers for the next Parliament in a contest that was delayed for years.
The legislative elections had been postponed for nearly four years because of a political showdown between Haiti's executive and opposition. They have been billed as a crucial test of the country's electoral system ahead of a presidential vote in late October.
Sunday's first round sought to fill two-thirds of the 30-member Senate and the entire 119-member Chamber of Deputies in the nation still struggling to recover from a 2010 earthquake that devastated the capital and surrounding areas.
But a number of polling stations across the Caribbean country of 10 million people had to wait for ballots a few hours after voting was supposed to start at 6:00 a.m. (1000 GMT). In sections of Port-au-Prince, voters also grew exasperated after being told they couldn't cast ballots because their names weren't on official voting lists.
"This is very frustrating. Are they trying to discourage voting?" gardener Gerald Henry complained after election workers turned him away.
In the crowded capital, at least three voting centers were shut down by authorities after fistfights broke out as partisans attempted to stuff ballot boxes and engage in other visible irregularities. At one voting center in downtown Port-au-Prince, groups of young men ripped up paper ballots as heavily armed police shot into the air to re-establish order. Rocks were thrown in response before authorities closed the polling station.
Local media also reported the closure of numerous polling places in other sections of the country and scattered arrests of people accused of voting more than once. Observers from various political parties complained election officials did not give them access to voting centers.
Still, Haitian Prime Minister Evans Paul said the government was satisfied with how the legislative elections were handled, "despite the incidents that we would like to firmly condemn." Voting was extended for two hours at some polling stations due to ballot delays earlier in the day.
After voting ended, Pierre-Louis Opont, the head of the country's Provisional Electoral Council, told reporters that 54 polling stations, roughly 5 percent of the total, were closed Sunday amid violence and other disruptions. He also disclosed that a council staffer stole some of the elections material and vanished, but Oponte declined to provide more specifics other than the police were looking for him.
"We still don't know what his intention was," Oponte told reporters.
Authorities were also trying to confirm reports of one election-related fatality. "We know that there were instances of violence throughout the country," Oponte said.
The vote took place roughly eight months after Haiti's legislature was dissolved because the terms of lawmakers expired before new elections could be held.
It's the first election Haiti has held under President Michel Martelly, who took office in May 2011 and is in the final year of a five-year term. He has governed by decree since Parliament dissolved in January and cannot run for a consecutive term. In the absence of elections, Martelly has been accused of stacking the deck in his favor by appointing mayors and other municipal officials to replace those whose terms expired.
Roughly 5.8 million people were registered to vote and over 1,850 candidates from nearly 130 political parties competed.
Elections in Haiti are never easy and the Provisional Electoral Council has long been criticized for votes plagued by disorganization, ballot irregularities and fraud allegations.
Final results were not expected for several days and a significant amount of work will be needed to get the next Parliament up and running after it is installed. The first round of Haiti's presidential election and the second round of local elections are set for Oct. 25.
After voting at a heavily secured polling station, Martelly was asked what he thought of Sunday's disorder. He told reporters: "I hope that the election officials are better organized for the presidential elections in October."
AP writer David McFadden contributed to this report from Kingston, Jamaica.